Building resilient societies on empathy to preserve humanity
Picture above: Christinia with her new wakanyeja Eli – © All pictures: Come To Life, Hemmie Lindholm and Syd Woodward
We are all aware of the drastic changes our societies will have to achieve within the current decade to address our species’ greatest challenge, yet we fail to act even though our intentions are genuine. Our economic system is not designed to gear up for future adaptations, given our cultural norms and the short-termism mantra that we may consume endlessly on a finite planet. Developing empathy for future generations might not only help our societies reconnect with the meaning of life while bringing awareness to our position in the global system, it might very well help us design the changes needed to preserve humanity.
In search of a new model of society
No one really knows what our model of life will be like in the future. What we are sure of today is that it will depend on a radical change in our belief systems. A first level of evolution will consist in moving away from the technological hubris in which we are plunged. There is only one rule on Earth, that of the regeneration of our biological systems. The question is to know whether we will apply this rule in order to preserve the survival of future generations, or ignore it by imagining that it is always possible to live elsewhere; an elsewhere still unknown at this stage.
So, let’s ask ourselves the real questions. What meaning do we want to give to our lives? How are we going to leave this period that future generations will refer to as the Carbon Age? Do we have the will and roadmap to put in place the cultural foundations that will remove us from degenerative cycles towards those of the regeneration of planetary systems?
In nature, cycles regenerate by putting in place a collaborative strategy to create conditions conducive to the future life, while building on the foundations of past lives, themselves regenerative. These strategies are at the heart of the human concepts of biomimicry and permaculture which consist of preparing fertile soil to ensure that they live through the survival of others in a self-sustaining ecosystem. The resources of one not only become the resources of others but preserve them from any external disease because of the collaborative links that unite them. We find these strategies in most natural systems. So, how can we apply them to change ourselves deeply, so that we can modify human environments in our private, public and professional lives?
Towards deep-collaboration with all beings
Any notion of regeneration is associated with the concepts of social equity and environmental circularity. Indeed, regeneration is possible only if the chances of fulfilment of each entity in their interconnected sphere of life rest on an advanced collaborative model. The same goes for the business community in which it becomes imperative to move into the post-competitive era. We now need to move on with our understanding of how systems work, from our current “survival of the fittest” approach into a far more beneficial “cooperation for mutual benefit” strategy (Odum, 1983).
In order to survive, the elements of a system all have functions to put in place to preserve environmental circularity and roles to protect the level of social equity, by avoiding direct competition. We could make a parallel with our current personal and professional lives that are stressful because dense, crowded and highly competitive. While competition is considered as suppression of success, co-operation indicates that species coexist better together, i.e. that they are more successful together than alone. Moving into more collaborative strategies will help us move away from the search for monopolistic position into a more beneficial one based on co-existence with others.
"The fate of our world and species might depend on our capacity to create a desirable vision for humanity’s future."
In a circular economy, the circularity of the systems is expressed through the preservation of the quality of our stocks of resources in order to increase our resilience, above all economic. But there is another dimension identified as being even more important than the quality of a stock, that of its access to all and for all, and therefore of social equity. The predictive model HANDY (Motesharrei, Rivas, Kalnay, 2014) tells us that universal access to resources is the first condition in the survival of humanity. Our human functions would, therefore, be circular, which entails a radical change in our relationship to ecosystems, starting by ceasing to consider those as resources only. Changes imply that we will have to adapt, in all humility, to the rules governed by natural cycles. Our human roles would become centered on equitability, namely, on the evolution of our senses as well as our relationship to long term planning in order to preserve our offspring. We are talking about a step never taken in such a short time, the evolution of our consciences, our identities and our beliefs towards a greater capacity to relate to others, i.e towards more empathy.
Towards a global empathetic culture
The fate of our world and species might depend on our capacity to create a desirable vision for humanity’s future. It is easier said than done. Countless projects aim at creating alliances, cultivating awareness and unity, and yet we seem to escape the possibilities to rally behind a single unifying project. Somehow, we need to find a way to create unity in a world where divide and rule is the norm. Boundaries have a crucial role to play in defining who we are. They help us construct a sense of self, which occurs through the process of differentiation, which defines ‘us’ versus ‘them’. While categorising might seem undesirable to reach unity, it is, in fact, an essential process of identity construction.
The issue does not reside in the existence of this process, but in the properties of the interpersonal boundaries in which we operate. They do not have to create enmity. For instance, one can express different customs, cultures, religions or even shape and form, and yet be able to relate to someone perceived as different and respect their experience of being in the world. They may maintain their sense of who they uniquely are with a set of various attributes, yet not use differences with others as a base to discriminate on consideration, access to resources, standards of living, or human rights. This type of permeable boundary can be debated here in terms of a capacity to empathise.
Empathy has the potential to modify social boundaries, to alter our definition of self-identity to include others in the construction of what we ultimately think of as ‘us’. The process of self-categorisation is thought to involve three main parts: a human identity, a social identity and a personal identity. We give priority to each aspect contextually, depending on which is encouraged and may grant us a higher sense of self. For instance, a culture vindicating individualism may disproportionately switch focus on personal identity and dismiss our sense of belonging to the human identity. Ultimately, human motives revolve around the sense of belonging. What effect could we expect from a culture that widely cultivates empathy and solidarity as a way to reach social status? In the light of our global challenges, could we even extend such a definition of ingroup beyond humanity?
We can discuss the idea of a world in which differences do not restrain empathy, where on the contrary, we enlarge our definition of ‘us’ to include not only other humans, but other species, other forms of life while retaining and respecting groups’ own characteristics. This is essential to define our collective vision for the future because the extent of our empathy for others also determines the extent of our care for others, our sense of unity and ultimately how far we will go to protect what we think of as collective. It also co-creates a sense of belonging and thus a sense of hope in our capacity to share collectively cared for resources. We are talking about a complete relational transformation. But not one unknown to humanity.
Building on existing knowledge: all my relatives
“Mitakuye Oyasin”, which may be translated as “all my relatives” is referred to by the Lakota Sioux as a foundational concept of their belief system. It embodies a culturally-significant relational system with the natural world and all living things and acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between man and its environment without the separation present in our mainstream paradigm. “I am because they are” proclaims “Mitakuye Oyasin”. All living species are interconnected, one cannot exist without all others.
Lakotas today aim at living by these standards. Research suggests that a majority wish to live on and by the land (Pickering and Jewell, 2008) and grassroots sustainable projects flourish despite extreme material conditions imposed by the pressure of surviving in the consumerist world economy (Chesnais, 2017). Their traditional stories speak for that relational model. In a language that we perceive as metaphorical, living beings are accounted for as other people, other nations, brothers and sisters who communicate with each other.
The role of these stories is less to deliver a scientific description than to corroborate a kinship view of the world, where all human and non-human species have a voice and play a specific function. This knowledge system informs their perceptions of the natural world and therefore of the shape that practical solutions to mitigate human-environment conflict take. One will surely treat differently a plant species whether the plant is perceived as a nuisance, an economic externality or a relative. With a different relational model, we can perceive the possibility of a unifying vision where human systemic models and ecosystems can harmonise.
Today, as we seek a change in paradigm to take us away from that model, we should recognise the paradox of wanting to reinvent all solutions and give a new voice to existing human traditional knowledge.
"Empathy has the potential to modify social boundaries, to alter our definition of self-identity to include others in the construction of what we ultimately think of as ‘us’."
Stewardship for the generations to come
Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is widely recognised as the contribution that indigenous ecological worldviews can and should have on the definition of the global sustainable paradigm (Berkes et.al., 2000; Berkes et.al, 1994; Inglis et.al. 1993). There is much to learn from the Lakota ethos and generally from TEK to help us design the global empathetic project. One of the direct consequences of project design and management revolves around the concept and use of time. Grassroots projects in Lakota country often display unusually long-term timelines, they are nested within seven generations plans to build self-sufficient livelihoods. They answer to locally defined goals and grand visions for vibrant futures. Far from being solely conceptual, these overarching goals affect projects planning, funding and shape.
In development practices, funding is mostly subject to grants that apply limitations to projects in scope and time. Local visions and aspirations need to operate within these constraints or not happen at all. This widely affects the shape and reach of local projects and the visions they are trying to fulfil.
This fragmented approach to local development entails many problems. The timeline and amount determine the shape of the project and its management, and when and how milestones are designed. Ultimately, communities are left out of the process of determining priorities and managing change.
In contrast, projects observed in Lakota country and other indigenous and non-indigenous communities emerge from local needs. Projects such as OLCERI on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation aim at building a sustainable hub that develops feasible solutions to the food, housing and energy crisis, while nesting the project in cultural renewal and revival of traditional knowledge. The project is designed to unfold over seven generations or 300 years, what is considered needed to tackle the long-standing inequalities brought about by the colonial economic system. This literally means that the project initiators realise that they will not see the end of that project, but that what matters is to initiate and maintain it as an ongoing process. It infuses a sense of participating in something greater than oneself and allows to dream big enough to tackle wider issues.
In practice, the model uses whatever capital it can to complete pieces of the project. Through grants, volunteer labour and the organisation of ongoing learning events such as the successful annual Permaculture Convergence, it builds greenhouses, ecological premises and local capacity. But the project itself is not determined in shape or time by outside funding constraints. It fluctuates along with the dreams of the people who actually live on the land and will see its long-term effects.
Building a unifying project based on empathy and care is perhaps the most important challenge of our time. We can learn from existing alternatives and sustainable design to fuel that movement forward. It might require to get involved in our local communities and try to reconnect to the particular relations of our livelihood and take a little effort. But beyond its tangible effects on the human-environment paradigm, it might also help us become better and happier versions of ourselves.
The search for human nature
There are two dimensions we should focus on in our search for realignment, which could be:
1. that human and environmental systems can harmonise to evolve in concert, and
2. that human cultural frameworks can thrive within new empathetic relations.
Such an approach should transcend the boundaries we usually create between the environmental, the social and the economic, into far better adequacy with what it means to be human.
Our single unifying project could, therefore, be our ability to instil a collective approach to empathy, or our capacity to think of, relate to, act as if we were these ‘others’ upon which all lives depend. Empathy is based on our capacity to care for all, above all, within a multitude of dimensions, across a multitude of generations of beings.
Through their work, Baumgärtner and Quaas (2010) summarised it in three relationships: one needs to go beyond the economics-environmental relation aiming at justice between several human generations, within a human generation and between nature and humans. Therefore, building resilient societies adapted to their own environment means developing a new approach of long-term vision and wise occupation of space. Across generations, this could be reigniting a cultural wave of belonging to the land of our ancestors and offsprings, i.e. caring for the space around us, preparing it for natural abundance and starting with richer soils. Ideally, rebuilding the biodiversity locally should be an inter-generational vision that would cement communal relationships, and help set long-term objectives.
Within a generation, it means actively working on no longer acting individually, with the underlying aim of acting in full respect of others and addressing the needs of all. This relates to the South African concept of Ubuntu “I am because we are”, where societies give humans their humanity. We need to find this level of empathetic and practical relationality that can be also be found in “Mitakuye Oyasin” and many other indigenous frameworks. These are part of our collective human history and in front of the failure of our overall world project, we should have the humility to recognise that we need to relearn from that deep knowledge of the land.
Finally, a recovered understanding that we are nature, thus we should be the key to regenerating the very same environment that preserves life (Lemille, 2015). The richness of the Amazonian forest developed not just thanks to natural cycles as previously thought, but because of the adequacy of the land management systems that human civilisations were able to devise to create an abundance of ecosystems flows (Mann, 2005). Similar examples can be observed where indigenous communities were less preyed upon by utilitarian interests, such as in the Sierra Nevada of the Kogis in Columbia (Julien, 2009). More generally, this notion refers to the idea that our human impact does not have to be a negative one but that it can and should be positive.
Recent thinking in practical sustainability is actively bringing this indigenous concept to mainstream business practices under the form of regenerative development. In order to face our challenges, we need to go beyond mitigating climate change and start thinking about our active role as net-positive stewards of the land (Mang and Reed, 2015), which requires us to completely rethink our relational model within the environment. By engaging and impacting youth into proactive participation in this new global project, we might also end up transforming the current culture of fear into a global culture of hope.
To help us guide ourselves towards such an emphatic model of life on Earth, we have to be mentored by people living in the margins of our consumerist framework. Traditional Ecological Knowledge has proven to be able to survive throughout centuries despite the global destruction and wars brought onto its holders. Today, the very beings who struggle to live by the unsustainable model we imposed onto them are still speaking to us. From its 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature will always know better than humans. From ancestral knowledge of the complexity of the land, indigenous populations might have the keys to our survival in harmony with the Earth system; if only we dare to listen.
Dr Aude Chesnais has worked for over 10 years on sustainable innovation in Lakota communities in South Dakota, US. She uses participatory and decolonial methods to design and lead locally useful research that brings visibility to Lakota sustainable initiatives and their cultural specificities.
Alexandre Lemille, MBA, focuses on a societal model where humans are part of the upcoming circular economic framework, here they are considered nature – at the heart of the regeneration of the biosphere they depend upon to live – and, they are considered endless available energies that will aim at restoring a world at scale focused on human prosperity first thanks to material circularity.
© All pictures: Come To Life, Hemmie Lindholm and Syd Woodward
This article was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.